This September, NEI held a special training for our Farmer Champions teaching them how to pollinate vanilla. This is such a vital part of the vanilla growing process that the training will be repeated three times. Our Farmer Champions will disseminate this knowledge throughout our entire network of more than 1600 farmers, ensuring that each farmer maximizes their harvest, and therefore their income!
Hand pollination of vanilla is a very delicate process. Each flower blooms only once and must be pollinated within a 6 to 8 hour window of doing so. To complete the pollination, our farmers use a toothpick to push up the rostellum, a very small flap in the centre of the flower. This allows pollen to be passed from the anther to the stigma.
At our training, farmers receive hands-on instruction from our field officers on how to do this correctly. Each farmer can practice their pollination skills, as well as provide support and advice to one another. Pollination is so important because it enables the vine to grow long green fruits, commonly referred to as pods. These green pods are what is harvested and then cured to make black vanilla pods, which in turn are used to make the Epicurious Hedgehog Vanilla Extract you know and love!
The reason vanilla must be pollinated by hand is a rather interesting one. Vanilla, which originates from the tropical forests of Mexico, can only be pollinated in nature by a very specific type of bee known as the melipona bee.
When Mexico was colonized, Europeans fell in love with the flavour and took vanilla plants back with them to grow in their tropical African colonies. Since the melipona bee does not exist elsewhere in the world, the vanilla was not pollinated and, therefore, did not produce fruit.
Europeans tried unsuccessfully to introduce the melipona bee, and it wasn’t until 1836 that Belgian botanist Charles Morren discovered it was possible to pollinate vanilla by hand. Since then, vanilla has been enjoyed as a delicious flavour worldwide.
Howell, M. (2016, May 05). Hand-pollination used to produce vanilla. Retrieved September 26, 2017, from http://newsok.com/article/5496227
Kull, T., Arditti, J., & Wong, S. M. (2009). Orchid biology: reviews and perspectives, X. New York: Springer.